Conservative Colloquium

An Intellectual Forum for All Things Conservative

Individual Freedom: A Tenet of Christian Prudence

Posted by Tony Listi on April 21, 2008

Within limits, human beings should respect the individual freedom other human beings because this freedom, our free will, is a gift of God. I believe our freedom is also a reflection of the freedom of God, a reflection of his image and likeness perhaps.

However, we live in a fallen world such that people do not always use this gift responsibly. Human beings must endeavor to order themselves correctly as best they can, though knowing all the while that everyone, even our leaders, are fallen and prone to the disorder of sin. So for the sake of ordered society, we cannot tolerate the abuse of that freedom in certain circumstances, especially when they cause harm to others. And because human beings are dependent on each other for learning and practicing good order, widespread abuse of freedom could ultimately destroy a community or a nation. In such cases, power and coercion (i.e. government) must be brought to bear to curb individual freedom.

Therefore, the social and political life of human beings is characterized by the tension between order and liberty (which is a key insight of conservatism). Theoretically, if the state could in fact order human beings’ lives and society well (totalitarianism), would Christians have any reason not to support state intervention into all aspects of their lives? Yes, because such a fact would deny the value of human freedom. There would be no value in a hypothetically all-benevolent state controlling each and every citizen like a remote controlled robot. Individual freedom does have value in and of itself.

Also, for all the imperfections of the human soul and the free market, more often than not, government intervention in the market and the lives of individuals does more harm than good. The concentration of power necessary for a supposedly benevolent government to totally order society, that concentration of power is itself corrupting and thus a cause of disorder.

Therefore, individual freedom, for the Christian and conservative, is not a matter of absolute principle but rather one of prudence (as is requiring obedience to human authorities). And thus the exercise of reason is required too. Harm to others must be weighed against individual freedom.

Thus the conservative certainly believes that prudence dictates much more economic freedom than we have currently in the US. The conservative, though, may struggle on a variety of issues relating to personal freedom (gay marriage, prostitution, drugs, etc.). The struggle arises because the harm to others may be less apparent or immediate and little to no coercion is involved.

2 Responses to “Individual Freedom: A Tenet of Christian Prudence”

  1. A careful conservative answer might be that freedom is good so long as it is directed toward wise ends. The individual should be pursuing what is good for him and those around him. Freedom misused harms one’s self and others (and in fact leads to the loss of spiritual and economic freedom).

    In other words, it’s not so much that we have to weigh freedom in a balance over against social impact, as much as we have to evaluate policies based on whether they encourage virtuous, responsible use of freedom or not.

  2. foospro86 said

    Sure, in a strictly philosophical sense only freedom directed toward the good is in fact good. But I don’t see how that helps one make headway in making good public policy. Are we to take away all liberties that could potentially stray from the good?

    Freedom for good vs. freedom for ill was not the dichotomy I was addressing because it doesn’t really help very much from a policy perspective. EVERY freedom can be abused. If we determined which freedoms we should have based merely on whether or not they could be abused, we would have no freedoms at all!

    “we have to evaluate policies based on whether they encourage virtuous, responsible use of freedom or not”
    What do you mean by “encourage”? Virtue that is not freely chosen is not virtue at all. I am very skeptical that government policy has the ability to engender virtue. Its role is to establish justice and order. The family, church, and civil society can be incubators of virtue.

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